Information Design Watch

April 25, 2007, 9:31 am

The Entrepreneurs of Simplicity

By Henry Woodbury

My father recently recommended to me a book on technology entrepreneurs: Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston. Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with technologists from Steve Wozniak (Apple) to Caterina Fake (Flickr).

Here are some quotes Dad sent my way (all of a theme):

I think I was also surprised by the success of something so simple.  [W]hat we built wasn’t that amazing.  It was the idea of putting a couple of things together and being able to establish a lead by doing something really, really simple. How far you can get on a simple idea is amazing…. ~Evan Williams, Co-founder, Pyra Labs (Blogger.com)

Do as little as possible to get what you have to get done….Doing less is so important.  People often wind up adding features, adding stuff.  Making it bigger is the typical way you engineer out of a problem, right?  It’s the traditional, ‘I apologize for the long letter.  I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’ “ ~Joshua Schachter, Founder, del.icio.us

‘We’re making a product for mom and dad. Some of the features that you think we should add may not be the ones that they want to use. ….. It’s hard to convince 500 flesh-and-blood developers that their pet feature may not be desirable to 500 million imaginary users.” ~Blake Ross, Creator, Firefox

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Technology

April 24, 2007, 11:00 am

The Art of Mexican Blackletter

By Lisa Agustin

If you’ve seen a bottle of Corona beer, you’ve already seen a sample of the Mexican Blackletter font.  With origins that can be traced back to the Blackletter or Gothic miniscule from 12th century Europe, this font conveys a sense of history and religious tradition. But while it may bring to mind reverential or scholarly images, its use as a multipurpose typeface for everything from shop signs to tattoos makes it a part of contemporary life in Mexico, says Cristina Paoli in her book Mexican Blackletter. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that Mexican Blackletter does not have a fixed appearance, since most of the time it is drawn by hand, usually by someone who is not experienced in typography. As Paoli noted in a recent interview on NPR’s The World:

Most of the time its drawn by hand. And this really has a tremendous impact on the actual shape of the letter. So it makes the whole letter form and its ornaments much more soft and loose. More times than not it’s made by the inexperienced hand of just ordinary people. The outcome is a typographical creation release from the rules and constraints of typography.

To read/listen to the NPR interview: http://www.theworld.org/?q=taxonomy_by_date/2/20070423

To read an excerpt adapted from the book: http://www.graphics.com/modules.php?name=Sections&op=viewarticle&artid=476

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Books and Articles, Typography

April 24, 2007, 9:48 am

The Reasoning of “I’m Hot”

By Henry Woodbury

Rob Harvilla in the Village Voice has a brilliant send-up of the breakout rap single “I’m Hot” and pseudo-scientific reasoning all in one music review. Consider this “proof” by Venn chart:

Mims is hot because he’s fly. But it raises the question: Does being hot guarantee one’s being fly? “You ain’t ’cause you not” would seem to clear that up:

Fig. 2. Not.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

April 20, 2007, 12:32 pm

The Walmart Projection

By Henry Woodbury

On a Mercator grid, artist Benjamin Edwards presents a Walmart projection: a world map that sizes nations by the number of goods they sell in Walmart.

The data was compiled in 2001 using a simple methodology:

Go to the nearest Wal-Mart from your present location. Inside each store, count as many objects as possible while noting their countries of origin.

To represent this data, Edwards roughly scales each country by percentage of the total product count, removes countries with zero results and places those remaining in approximate orientation. The result is crude but graphically effective.

But if you approach the map neutrally (elide the word “Walmart” from your brain), what does it mean? Compare the Walmart map to WorldMapper’s Total Population map.

Benjamin Edwards' Walmart Map fo the World Worldmapper Total Population Map

Now my question is not “why is China so big?” but “why is India so small?” (And, “why Italy instead of France, Germany or Spain?”)

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Cognitive Bias, Maps, Visual Explanation

April 16, 2007, 8:28 pm

If Tufte made a music video…

By Mac McBurney

Since I’m on a Tufte jag…

First, frequent commenter EB pointed us to discussion of a vaguely Tufte-esque video. This week our own Matt DeMeis sees and raises with a link to Le Grand Content. What’s next, a Best Parody of Information Design category at the Video Music Awards?

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

April 16, 2007, 2:15 pm

On Tufte and Napoleon’s March

By Mac McBurney

Napoleon's MarchIn February, the Dynamic Diagrams staff made a field trip (some might say pilgrimage) to Edward Tufte’s day-long seminar, “Presenting Data and Information.” If you’ve ever heard of Edward Tufte, you have probably seen Napoleon’s March to Moscow, Charles Josef Minard’s visual explanation of Napoleon’s disastrous attempt to conquer Russia in 1812.

Tufte says, “it may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” The graphic appears repeatedly in Tufte’s books, posters and brochures. At the recent seminar, I realized that the image has become a defacto corporate logo of Tufte and Graphics Press. At the seminar, the graphic was used in a sign directing participants from the hotel lobby to the upstairs lecture hall. It worked: Napoleon’s March quickly caught my eye and confirmed I was headed in the right direction.

Conventional wisdom v. six-variable masterpiece of information design

Because Napoleon’s March is so innovative, so lauded, so pervasive in Edwardtufteland and so emblematic of Tufte’s teachings, it was (I’m chagrined to admit) not easy for me to see that it undermines, rather than supports, the conventional view of the historical events. (Thanks to Piotr, creative director at d/D, for leading the way.)

Minard created his map to show the horrors of war. Tufte uses it to explain grand principles of data display. Both are succeessful, but Tufte misses an opportunity to emphasize just how powerful Minard’s graphic is. Tufte repeats the popular belief that “General Winter” defeated Napoleon’s army. I haven’t studied the history since high school, but this fits the image that sticks in my head: soldiers freezing to death.

In fact, according to Minard’s map, nearly three times as many French soldiers were lost (never mind the Russians) before the retreat and before the coldest weather. 90,000 died on the retreat–horrible to be sure — but 250,000 were lost before that. Only because the map follows Tufte’s grand principle number one, show the data, are we able to really question the conventional wisdom, ask useful questions and formulate alternate narratives. Now that I’m re-thinking my own understanding, I wonder why Tufte even mentions General Winter as the moral of the story.

Recency bias

In addition to temperature itself and the impending threat of winter, I suspect another factor strengthens the prevailing interpretation: recency bias. Only ten thousand French soldiers lived to tell the tale. They had just endured three months of immense suffering and witnessed the deaths of 90,000 comrades (90% of the retreating force). It’s hard to imagine their state of mind, but the previous summer was probably a distant memory.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Cognitive Bias, Information Design, Maps, Marketing, Visual Explanation

April 16, 2007, 9:59 am

Google Presents Gapminder

By Henry Woodbury

We last mentioned Hans Rosling and his stunning displays of economic data in reference to his 2006 TED Conference presentation (view it on YouTube).

Now Rosling offers Gapminder World on Google. As with Rosling’s other shared statistical applications, you can define your own indices and run your own animations. And, with Google’s Subscribed Links feature, you can target the Gapminder World dataset when you do a Google search.

You can still view or download other Gapminder applications on the Gapminder web site.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

April 5, 2007, 3:56 pm

The Neurological Case for Diagrams

By Henry Woodbury

Researchers at the University of New South Wales say the brain is not equipped to read and listen at the same time:

The findings show there are limits on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information in short-term memory.

John Sweller, from the university’s faculty of education, developed the “cognitive load theory”.

“The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster,” Professor Sweller said. “It should be ditched.”

It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.” (my emphasis)

Powerpoint is everyone’s favorite target these days, but of course, it’s how people use Powerpoint that is the problem.

Also interesting: People learn by studying already solved problems. Learn a solution and you have a better chance of applying it the next time you run into a problem.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology, Visual Explanation

April 4, 2007, 12:03 pm

Netscape is Number 1…

By Henry Woodbury

…on PC World’s list of the 50 best tech products of all time:

Netscape was the reason people started spending hours a day on the Internet, leading to the boom (and bust) of many a Web site. The advent of the browser also led to the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust suit against Microsoft, after the company embedded Internet Explorer into Windows. And Netscape’s August 9, 1995, IPO is universally considered to be the official start of the dot-com era.

It’s all there: popularity, impact, influence.

Are there any “aha” moments in the list? Instead of one-and-done devices like the Zip drive (#23), how about TurboTax (#38)? Now that’s a piece of software with ongoing impact. Once software handles the tax code (on the front-end and the back) it changes how the tax code can be permitted to change.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology